Sunday, January 3, 2016

Full of Grace

December 20, 2015
Luke 1: 39-55
Yesterday I went to an opera at the Met.  It’s the fourth one that I have been to in my life so I’m not an expert but boy, can those people sing!!  I think the lead singer was singing notes that haven’t even been invented!!

All people can sing.  You may think you can’t sing but, in fact, you can. Granted, some of you might sing like the luminous opera soprano Kathleen Battle, or be accomplished enough to be in a choir.  Then there are others who can, if you are willing enough, belt out a tune that sounds eerily reminiscent of a crow on a telephone wire.  But, you can all sing.

Some years ago I came across a poem by Mary Oliver in her book, ‘The Leaf and the Cloud’.  One poem entitled, ‘Work’ says this:

“The dreamy heads of the grass in early summer.
In mid summer: thick and heavy.
Sparrows swing on them, they bend down.
When the sparrow sings, its whole body trembles.”

When the sparrow sings, its whole body trembles.”  And I thought to myself, is that true?  So I had to look it up.  Sure enough when a sparrow lets out her trill she shakes, from her breast all the way down to the longest feathers in her tail, she shakes as she is making her sound like there is no tomorrow.  It must be some joyful, urgent and powerful message that this little brown and white bird is trying to communicate with us that her entire body quivers with excitement. 

I think this must have been how Mary, the mother of Jesus would have sung her beautiful hymn of praise, what is now known as ‘The Magnificat’, when she told Elizabeth, her relative, that she was the chosen one to give birth to Jesus.

We begin Mary’s story earlier though when an angel named Gabriel was sent to a small town named Nazareth in the upper Galilee.  There this young woman Mary, more likely an adolescent, heard the voice of Gabriel, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.  You will have a son who will be greater than all others.  You will name him Jesus and in his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary, elated with the news, travels quite a distance to the house of her relatives, here we begin our scripture reading for today from the Gospel of Luke the 1st chapter.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Well this is some divine conundrum!  This canticle, embedded within our scripture, was sung by the beloved and chosen Mary who found herself in this conundrum.  Her circumstances were less than favorable.  She was just probably 14 or 15 and you know what that means.  She was most likely noticing some normal hormonal changes in her body that produces somewhat unexplainable behavior in adolescents.  We’ve all been there, you know what I mean.  And now this!  A teenage pregnancy.

Certainly by no ordinary means how Mary came to be with child would raise the heaviest, hairiest of eyebrows.  How in the world do you explain that to your parents without them wanting to have a psychological evaluation taken immediately? It’s far fetched, let’s face it.

And to add more worry and embarrassment, she was not married.  Young and unmarried, she was as poor as a pauper, a handmaiden without means, no dowry to be given, no cattle to exchange for her hand.  Nothing. And depravity, violence and corruption was prevalent all around her thanks to the Roman occupation and Herod the Great -  that’s Mary’s world – who would want to bring a child into this type of world?

Well this whole thing is just absurd. Young, unmarried, poor and pregnant and Mary proclaims the incarnation into an upside down world.  She gets it!  The meaning of Jesus’ arrival would be subversive – good for the poor folk and real bad for the rich and powerful folk.   And she really gets it.  Oh the hope of our youth!

And so she sings. But by all strokes of the imagination she should not be singing this beautiful canticle though, she should be crying buckets of tears because of her scandalous situation. 

In spite of her difficult, almost dire and extenuating situation she sings of being God’s favored one.  She sings of God’s strength in lifting up the lowly and scattering the proud, of how God has filled the hungry and has brought down the powers of oppression. Her song expresses the needs of the poor and lowly, the marginalized and oppressed.  She sure knows, she’s been there and she has hope.  Her song is an act of resistance, she did not retreat from what she was asked to do.  Mary sings her song within this dichotomy of despair and anticipation.

She chooses only hope because not only has God found favor with her, but in this act of divine commitment God has found favor with the world.  So she praises God for this critical and much needed intervention into the human condition.  This is the God incarnate and she is filled with God’s saving grace.

For us the glory and joy of Christmas comes by way of this young and ordinary one who accepted God’s call into her life.  God sought her out and met her where she was and after that she did not look back.  She only looked forward with optimism and trust. 

God meets you too where you are – wherever that might be and with whatever you have come into the room with today, God meets you and greets you, “favored ones”, God says.   Now that’s something to sing about.  You are favored.

How will you sing this Advent?  How will you belt out the good news? How will you dare, like Mary to sing even though you have considered all of the facts?  What would your thanksgiving be to God?  What would your message be to the people?  God becomes human and God wants us to be human, real, humble, open to wonder.  God does not seek out the perfect human being but takes us on in our uniqueness and fallen selves, all imperfect and gnarly.  There is grace in that. 

This is the season of joy, of good tidings, of giving.  But we can’t forget that all of this is preceded by God’s grace, that’s what gives us the conviction to be joyful.  God has found favor with you.  You are full of grace, full of the goodness of God, full of the Christ, the one who sets us free from earthly tribulation.  Make room for Christ in your heart, like Mary made room for Christ in her womb, and begin to sing.

You see singing, it’s not about the degree of proficiency of music or the clarity of voice or even if you know the correct lyrics.  It’s about making a sound that praises God amidst the adversities of your life until your whole body trembles, with conviction and joy.


No comments: